Third IE9 Platform Preview: Let the Hardware Acceleration Wars Begin

Microsoft is continuing with its interesting one-step-at-a-time Internet Explorer 9 strategy: It’s releasing its third “Platform Preview” of the browser today. This isn’t a full-blown browser–it’s IE9′s new rendering engine, with HTML5 capabilities, hardware-accelerated graphics, and other goodies, plus enough of a front end that developers and browser junkies can get a taste of what’s to come. New features in this update include support for HTML5 video and further overall speed tweaks.

As with the previous previews, Microsoft has a test drive site which lets you download the IE9 preview and check out demos you can run in any browser. They’re all cool examples of the richer, more interactive Web that’s still a work in progress–and the ones involving animation, not surprisingly, tend to run radically faster and smoother in IE9 than in other browsers. They certainly did at a Microsoft event I attended this morning, where a bevy of computers ranging from an underpowered little netbook to a six-core desktop machine ran the Platform Preview.

Among the new demos: an Amazon.com concept site that makes browsing for books a little like using the iPad app for the Kindle, and a movie-trailer viewer designed in collaboration with IMDb.

Other browsers lag IE9 by so much in these demos that Microsoft’s ambitious efforts have a Catch 22 effect: If IE is the only browser that can do zippy, ambitious animation of this sort, no Web company is going to support it, since the experience would be so crummy for everyone who uses other browsers.

(Well, okay, one company might: Microsoft. Nobody else, though.)

For this reason, it’s in everybody’s best interest if a new front opens up in the browser wars–one in which all of IE’s competitors duke it out for hardware acceleration supremacy. Until now, most of the energy that browser companies have put into speed improvements has related to souping up JavaScript engines, but we may be reaching a point of diminishing returns: Microsoft’s own SunSpider benchmarks show IE9 beating Firefox and Chrome 4 and within milliseconds of other browsers.

If every browser does great JavaScript, it might be time to divert resources to speeding up other aspects of the Web. Hardware acceleration isn’t the only route to take, it’s certainly a promising one. And Microsoft would still have a decent chance at trumping rivals in this area–it has a head start, and it’s the only major browser company that has the luxury of focusing all its energies on making its software run well on one operating system which it happens to control.

Here’s a Microsoft blog post on the new Platform Preview–with, appropriately, some embedded HTML5 video. The company isn’t saying anything about its timetable for finishing up IE9 other than that it plans to continue to release Platform Previews once every eight weeks or so. But given past IE pre-release cycles and the fact we haven’t seen a real full-blown IE9 beta yet, it may be many months before IE9 is fully baked.

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